Sports

Plaschke: Strike the pose: USC’s Caleb Williams deserves Heisman Trophy

He danced. He darted. He dodged. He defied. He defined.

During one hot moment on a chilly Saturday night in downtown Los Angeles, this city’s newest sports superstar ran around the Coliseum grass for what seemed like an eternity while avoiding desperate hulks, lunging helmets, flailing arms.

Then it happened. Whoa. Wow. Just like that. Just like it previously happened for every other great player who has won college football’s greatest award.

Caleb Williams created his Heisman Moment.

Running away from seemingly half the Notre Dame defense late in the first half, leaping off one foot just ahead of a giant grasp, Williams twisted his torso and threaded the ball 23 yards down the right sideline and into the arms of Jordan Addison.

An improbable scramble. An impossible throw. A rumbling chant. A national roar.

“Heis-man! Heis-man!” sang the USC student section.

Three plays later, after pulling off one of his many magical fake handoffs followed by a five-yard touchdown run up the middle, Williams shared his classmates’ sentiment.

Running to the sidelines with a 17-7 lead, Williams stuck his hand down and his leg up in the classic Heisman pose.

He’ll soon be holding the real thing. The race is over. The polling will be overwhelming. It shouldn’t even be close.

On Dec. 10 in New York’s Times Square, Caleb Williams should become the record-setting eighth Trojan to win the Heisman Trophy after clinching it with USC’s 38-27 victory over the Irish.

For a second consecutive weekend, Williams blew away an opponent on a national television stage, following his destruction of UCLA with a demolition of the Irish, running for three touchdowns, passing for another, completing 18 of 22 throws for 232 yards.

For the season, he has passed for 3,712 yards and 34 touchdowns with just three interceptions.

For the umpteenth time, he has led the now 11-1 Trojans with not only his ability, but this spirit, ending Saturday’s game by leading the towel-waving crew from the sidelines with such scream-to-the-sky passion, a staffer had to pull him and his towel back off the field before the Trojans were assessed a penalty.

With his gleaming white headband and scruffy beard and constant cheering, the sophomore transfer from Oklahoma has vaulted from local anonymity to celebrated fixture about as quickly as one of his scrambles.

Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams is surrounded by media members after USC’s win over Notre Dame at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

As recently as last month, this column space claimed that Williams wasn’t even the best college quarterback in town, as he seemed a step behind UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

That changed in a hurry. As the stakes rose, Williams’ impact rose, his comfort level finally matching his ability level, his quarterback rating rising in each of his last four games, his inspiration spreading everywhere.

“Myself, I’ve been trying to lead more,” Williams said. “There’s been times throughout games and practice where I’m not leading to my ability and I’m for sure trying to pick that up.”

Walking off the Coliseum field after saluting the band Saturday night, Williams came upon several kids wearing his No. 13. He gave them all high-fives and said, “Nice jersey.”

Nice guy. A worthy successor to the likes of Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. Trojans fans barely know him, but understandably already embrace him.

And about that Heisman pose, it really wasn’t his idea, seriously…

“A bunch of my teammates were saying do it … after I score I normally just kind of don’t do anything, so they told me to do it,” Williams said. “They kept saying it so I just ended up doing it in the moment.”

Certainly, there is much work remaining in this suddenly exhilarating completion of coach Lincoln Riley’s dream debut season. The Trojans still need to win the Pac-12 championship game Friday in Las Vegas to qualify for the College Football Playoff’s final four.

But one thing has been settled. Despite history indicating otherwise, Williams deserves the Heisman Trophy no matter what happens next.

Said receiver Tahj Washington, who convinced Williams to strike the Heisman pose: “It’s only right, it’s true.”

Said running back Austin Jones: “He’s the best player in the country.”

Addison, who pantomimed placing a crown on Williams’ head on the sidelines, added, “He’s the one … he’s going to be down in New York … we go do what we’ve got to do this Friday, it’s going to be his.”

In the previous eight seasons of the CFP, seven of the Heisman winners came from a playoff team, the only exception being Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2016. But Williams perfectly fits the mold of that exception.

He stars with his arm and stuns with his legs. His leadership took over a 4-8 team and turned it into a potential national champion.

And look at his competition. After Saturday, there isn’t any.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams evades Notre Dame defensive back Justin Ademilola in the fourth quarter Nov. 26, 2022.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams evades Notre Dame defensive lineman Justin Ademilola in the fourth quarter.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

C.J. Stroud, the Ohio State quarterback and Heisman favorite throughout much of the season, committed two interceptions as his Buckeyes were blown out by Michigan.

Bryce Young, the defending Heisman winner from Alabama, hasn’t been overwhelmingly impressive. Blake Corum, the Michigan running back, is injured. Max Duggan, the leader of undefeated Texas Christian, has thrown for more than 500 fewer yards than Williams.

And no quarterback in the country has succeeded under a similar spotlight with such versatility as Williams, who needed only Saturday night’s first drive to show again how his value extended far beyond just passing a football.

He started the game by beautifully pulling off two fake handoffs and tossing a 31-yard pass to Lake McRee. He perfectly executed a reverse handoff that Addison carried for seven yards. He faked a pass and ran up the middle for seven yards to give him 323 yards rushing this season, a record for a USC quarterback. Finally, he eluded one rusher, juked another one, and hit Washington on an 11-yard pass for the game’s first touchdown.

“My dad from when I was younger … we have a rule to take what’s in front of you … and he reminds me that I’m a little athletic, so sometimes take off,” Williams said. “And my dad always talks about it, take off, take off, take off. Extending plays is part of football.”

On the Trojans’ third possession, Williams eluded seemingly half of the Irish defense in completing a 12-yard pass to Mario Williams, then, on the ensuing fourth-down play, he unleashed a 58-yard punt.

Is there anything he can’t do?

In the third quarter he led the Trojans to their third touchdown with a perfect 18-yard pass between two Notre Dame defenders and into the hands of Washington in front of the Irish goal line.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs the ball into the end zone for a second-quarter touchdown Nov. 26, 2022.

Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams runs the ball into the end zone for a second-quarter touchdown.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Then, on the next USC drive, the chant reappeared when Caleb Williams scrambled 20 yards around numerous gold helmets to set up a three-yard touchdown run which he finished by planting both feet in the end zone like he owns it.

Which, right now, he does.

By then, even DJ Mal-Ski was getting into the act, the Trojans’ spirit leader leading the crowd in the “Heis-man” cries.

USC has had seven Heisman Trophy winners — yes, we’re counting the one that Reggie Bush gave back — and one more and they would lead all schools in that category.

The Trojans are used to greatness, and when they decide to sell it, they can really sell it. Before the game, the scoreboard blared a Heisman advertisement for Caleb Williams, including a QR code that the narrator said could be scanned to register a Heisman fan vote. It was a nice gesture, except, well, there’s no such thing as a Heisman fan vote.

Caleb Williams won’t need it. He’s just won it.



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